Eating healthy foods should be the main approach for all of us looking to live a happy and long life. In a world filled with fear, stress, environmental pollutants, and many other negative inputs that lead our bodies to imbalance and chronic disease, food might be one of the few things that we can actually manage in terms of our health.
However, most people live very artificial lives, and eat very artificial, unhealthy foods. The most common end point of this “unnatural” lifestyle is chronic disease. And most chronic diseases stem from one systemic condition: chronic inflammation.
Inflammation by itself, does not constitute a problem. Inflammation is the body’s natural response against harmful pathogens or damaged tissues and cells. Inflammation can be the result of a simple cut on your finger, or the inflammatory process triggered by a sprained ankle, and in both cases here, it is a good thing. It is essential for healing.
In fact, a simple medical definition of inflammation, “A localized protective reaction of tissue to irritation, injury, or infection, characterized by pain, redness, swelling, and sometimes loss of function1”, highlights how this inflammatory process is “protective” and “localized”. This is a very good definition for acute inflammation, which is what the body was perfectly designed to do. The problem starts when the body is not able to heal. Cancer for example, is often referred to as the “wound that won’t heal.”
Several factors can affect the body’s ability to resolve inflammation, such as deficiencies in antioxidants, vitamins, and microelements, and physiological processes, such as aging2. That is when inflammation can become chronic and often systemic. Chronic inflammation can instigate numerous chronic diseases via dysregulation of various signaling pathways such as nuclear factor kappa-B, signal transducer and activator of transcription 3, etc3. This is one of the main reasons why the report “Fighting Inflammation”, from Harvard Medical School considers that inflammation “plays a central role in some of the most challenging diseases of our time, including rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and even Alzheimer’s4.”
In the same report we can find the definition of both acute and chronic inflammation, which helps us understand the core and substantial differences between both. 4
“Comes on rapidly, usually within minutes, but is generally short-lived. Many of the mechanisms that spring into action to destroy invading microbes switch gears to cart away dead cells and repair damaged ones. This cycle returns the affected area to a state of balance, and inflammation dissipates within a few hours or day4.”
“Often begins with the same cellular response, but morphs into a lingering state that persists for months or years when the immune system response fails to eliminate the problem. Alternatively, the inflammation may stay active even after the initial threat has been eliminated. In other cases, low-level inflammation becomes activated even when there is no apparent injury or disease. Unchecked, the immune system prompts white blood cells to attack nearby healthy tissues and organs, setting up a chronic inflammatory process that plays a central role in some of the most challenging diseases of our time, including rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and even Alzheimer’s4.”
Now you have probably understood the great difference between acute and chronic inflammation, and while the first is essential for healing, the later can become the root cause of many illnesses, being considered one of the primary markers of cancer. As explained by Dr. Thomas Lodi, “the inflammatory response plays a major role in tumor development. Inflammation is a factor during numerous cancer phases including initiation, promotion, invasion and malignant conversion as well as metastasis5.”
This scary reality prompts us to try to find the best natural ways to prevent and even reverse chronic inflammation, which would in turn help prevent many diseases, including cancer. The foods you eat, and the diet plan you follow can influence different stages of inflammation and therefore substantially impact the development of several inflammatory diseases. As Dr. Lodi states in his article: Cancer and Inflammation, “eating only living plant material results in a human biochemical condition, which completely and effectively keeps the inflammatory/anti-inflammatory ratio in a harmonic resonance that is necessary for optimal functioning6.”
One possible solution that is within everyone’s reach is to start eating more anti-inflammatory foods. Evidence suggests that a diet rich in plant-based agents has the ability to prevent most of the chronic diseases, by targeting inflammatory pathways3.
But which foods are anti-inflammatory? Let us introduce you to the top anti-inflammatory foods based on recent research papers.
TOP ANTI-INFLAMMATORY FOODS
- More than 130 medicinal functions are thought to be produced by medicinal mushrooms and fungi including antimicrobial, anti-tumor, antioxidant, anti-viral, anti-bacterial, anti-parasitic, antifungal, detoxification, immunomodulatory, and most significantly, anti-inflammatory properties
- Mushrooms are rich in anti-inflammatory components, such as polysaccharides, phenolic and indolic compounds, mycosteroids, fatty acids, carotenoids, vitamins, and biometals
- They possess therapeutic and health-promoting benefits, particularly in relation to diseases associated with inflammation
- There’s a wide variety of edible mushrooms, like shiitake, cordyceps, white button, reishi, chaga, maitake, turkey tail, lion’s mane, many of them can be found raw, dehydrated, or in powders and tinctures. If you prefer to buy them raw, we recommend that you cook them, since cooking helps to break down the cell walls and enhance its beneficial properties
- Fermented fruits, vegetables, and grains can enrich your diet with numerous live microorganisms, phytochemicals, and bioactive compounds, essential for the functional and health-promoting properties of fermented products
- Fermented blueberries and blackberries, due to the high content of phenolic compounds with strong antioxidant activity, may protect against chronic inflammatory disorders by decreasing oxidative stress, modulating inflammatory signaling and responses, and improving immunity
- Fermented cabbage products, such as sauerkraut and kimchi, contain live Lactobacillus which are essential in improving health and preventing chronic diseases. Lactobacilli contribute to a healthy gut microbial balance and to modulate inflammatory and immune responses
- Fermented soybeans are an excellent source of isoflavones with known anti-inflammatory properties and the probiotics found in fermented soy products contribute to the health benefits of these nutritious foods
- Spices besides being tasty and adding delicious flavors to food, also demonstrate enormous health benefits
- Studies have demonstrated the efficacy of spices and their bioactive components in preventing and combating various diseases associated with chronic inflammation, including arthritis, asthma, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and neurodegenerative diseases
- It is interesting to notice that some of the most used spices in culinary also exhibit biological activity, such as cinnamon, cumin, clove, ginger, turmeric, rosemary, black pepper, star anise, saffron, cardamom, fenugreek, fennel, etc. The bioactive components present in many spices help reduce inflammation.
- 3 of the most used spices known for their anti-inflammatory properties:
- Turmeric (Curcuma longa) – anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, insecticidal, antimutagenic, radioprotective, and anticancer properties
- Black pepper (Piper nigrum) – immunomodulatory, antioxidant, anti-asthmatic, anti-carcinogenic, anti-inflammatory and anti-ulcer properties
- Ginger (Zingiber officinale) – antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antiproliferative properties
- Fruit berries are delicious and one of the best dietary sources of bioactive compounds, which can also be used as functional food ingredients
- The berries that contain the most bioactive compounds belong to the families Rosaceae (strawberry, raspberry, blackberry), and Ericaceae (blueberry, cranberry). Grape berries (genus Vitis) and their products (juice, wine) are also great sources of bioactive compounds
- Bioactive compounds in berries:
- antioxidants such as phenolic compounds, anthocyanins and carotenoids
- diverse phenolic compounds, including phenolic acids, flavonoids (flavonols, flavanols) and anthocyanins, tannins, and ascorbic acid
- Bioactive compounds, both individually and combined, possess high antioxidant capacity
- Berries, through their antioxidant activity, may help decrease the incidence of oxidative stress-induced damage and DNA damage
- This can help in the prevention of chronic inflammation and associated conditions, being protective against cardiovascular diseases and certain cancers
- Berries are low in calories and should ideally be consumed fresh, when the most bioactive compounds are still active and in the greatest amount
Allium (Latin word for “garlic”)3,9
- Plants of the genus Allium, including onions, garlic, leeks, scallions, chives, and shallots, are known for their production of organosulfur compounds, responsible for many of their biological and therapeutic properties
- Garlic, onions, leeks, and chives contain flavonoids that promote the production of glutathione, the body’s “master antioxidant”, known for its high “free-radical-scavenging” abilities
- Garlic (Allium sativum) is one of the most studied plants of this genus and is widely used both culinarily and therapeutically
- Garlic exhibits several biological activities, such as antimicrobial, cardioprotective, gastroprotective, immunomodulatory, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties, which can be attributed to the presence of diverse phytochemicals
- The mechanisms of action of garlic happens through the modulation of cytokine profiles and stimulation of immune cells.
- Quercetin, also present in plants of the genus Allium, offers powerful antioxidant activity and radical scavenging and anti-allergic properties characterized by stimulation of immune system, antiviral activity, inhibition of histamine release, decrease in pro-inflammatory cytokines, leukotrienes creation, and suppression of interleukin IL-4 production
- Garlic can be found in different dietary formulations, such as powder (tablets), garlic oil (capsules), and aged garlic extracts (tablets, capsules, and liquids). However, be aware that the processing of these formulations may influence considerably the composition of the final product and thus its biological effects
Cruciferous Vegetables Brassica Cruciferae/Brassicaceae10,11
- Vegetables from the Brassica (Brassicaceae) family, including broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, arugula, Brussels sprouts, etc., exhibit a high content of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agents
- Diets rich in these vegetables, also called cruciferous, have been associated with reduced incidence of inflammatory and chronic diseases, including several types of cancer
- Cruciferous vegetables are rich in Vitamin C, vital for immune function and the modulation of host resistance to infectious agents, and glutathione, which, as mentioned before is known for its high free-radical-scavenging abilities
- However, most of the beneficial effects of these vegetables have been attributed to the sulfur-containing glucosinolates — secondary plant compounds nearly exclusively present in Brassicaceae — and in particular to their bioactive breakdown products including isothiocyanates
- Plant phytochemicals, such as glucosinolates and particularly isothiocyanates, display anti-carcinogenic and anti-inflammatory properties
- These phytochemicals help prevent oxidative stress, promote detoxification enzymes, stimulate the immune system, and decrease cancer risk and tumorigenesis
- Glucosinolates and isothiocyanates, as anti-inflammatory compounds, may play an important role on chronic inflammatory diseases, either as diet co-adjuvants or as therapeutic molecules
- Some studies also suggest that Brassica-derived phytochemicals, such as isothiocyanates and other glucosinolates breakdown products, may target epigenetic mechanisms such as histone modifications and DNA methylation, contributing to its health-promoting effects
These studies all point to the same conclusion: plant-rich diets, with plenty of vegetables and fruits, spices and herbs, and especially adding “superfoods” like mushrooms and fermented foods, help increase the body’s antioxidant status and modulate oxidative and inflammatory stress in humans12.
This can be attributed mainly to the enormous diversity of potent phytochemicals present in plant foods. These phytochemicals, besides individual mechanisms of action, display multi-factorial and often synergistic interactions that potentiate their highly beneficial effects. This concerted action of plant foods and their bioactive compounds can efficiently prevent the rise of oxidative and inflammatory stress, which play a determinant role in the development and persistence of chronic inflammation and associated degenerative diseases12.
Eat healthy plants to be a healthy human!
- inflammation. (n.d.) The American Heritage® Medical Dictionary. (2007). Retrieved May 10 2022 from https://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Inflammation
- Muszyńska B, Grzywacz-Kisielewska A, Kała K, Gdula-Argasińska J. Anti-inflammatory properties of edible mushrooms: A review. Food Chem. 2018 Mar 15;243:373-381. doi: 10.1016/j.foodchem.2017.09.149. Epub 2017 Sep 30. PMID: 29146352.
- Kunnumakkara AB, Sailo BL, Banik K, Harsha C, Prasad S, Gupta SC, Bharti AC, Aggarwal BB. Chronic diseases, inflammation, and spices: how are they linked? J Transl Med. 2018 Jan 25;16(1):14. doi: 10.1186/s12967-018-1381-2. PMID: 29370858; PMCID: PMC5785894.
- Harvard Medical School. Special Health Report. Fighting Inflammation. Harvard Health Publishing. 2020. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-inflammation, accessed May 5, 2022
- Lodi T. An Oasis of Healing. Health Articles. Vitamin C Therapy Reduces Inflammation In Cancer Patients. 12 Dec 2016. https://www.anoasisofhealing.com/vitamin-c-therapy-reduces-inflammation-in-cancer-patients/, accessed May 10, 2022.
- Lodi T. An Oasis of Healing. Health Articles. Cancer and Inflammation. 8 Dec 2011. https://www.anoasisofhealing.com/cancer-and-inflammation/, accessed May 10, 2022.
- Shahbazi R, Sharifzad F, Bagheri R, Alsadi N, Yasavoli-Sharahi H, Matar C. Anti-Inflammatory and Immunomodulatory Properties of Fermented Plant Foods. Nutrients. 2021 Apr 30;13(5):1516. doi: 10.3390/nu13051516. PMID: 33946303; PMCID: PMC8147091.
- Skrovankova S, Sumczynski D, Mlcek J, Jurikova T, Sochor J. Bioactive Compounds and Antioxidant Activity in Different Types of Berries. Int J Mol Sci. 2015 Oct 16;16(10):24673-706. doi: 10.3390/ijms161024673. PMID: 26501271; PMCID: PMC4632771.
- Arreola R, Quintero-Fabián S, López-Roa RI, Flores-Gutiérrez EO, Reyes-Grajeda JP, Carrera-Quintanar L, Ortuño-Sahagún D. Immunomodulation and anti-inflammatory effects of garlic compounds. J Immunol Res. 2015;2015:401630. doi: 10.1155/2015/401630. Epub 2015 Apr 19. PMID: 25961060; PMCID: PMC4417560.
- García-Ibañez P, Yepes-Molina L, Ruiz-Alcaraz AJ, Martínez-Esparza M, Moreno DA, Carvajal M, García-Peñarrubia P. Brassica Bioactives Could Ameliorate the Chronic Inflammatory Condition of Endometriosis. Int J Mol Sci. 2020 Dec 10;21(24):9397. doi: 10.3390/ijms21249397. PMID: 33321760; PMCID: PMC7763502.
- Sturm C, Wagner AE. Brassica-Derived Plant Bioactives as Modulators of Chemopreventive and Inflammatory Signaling Pathways. Int J Mol Sci. 2017 Sep 1;18(9):1890. doi: 10.3390/ijms18091890. PMID: 28862664; PMCID: PMC5618539.
- Serafini M, Peluso I. Functional Foods for Health: The Interrelated Antioxidant and Anti-Inflammatory Role of Fruits, Vegetables, Herbs, Spices and Cocoa in Humans. Curr Pharm Des. 2016;22(44):6701-6715. doi: 10.2174/1381612823666161123094235. PMID: 27881064; PMCID: PMC5427773.
Vanessa Pinto graduated with a degree in Biology and Masters in Ecology from Lisbon University. After graduating, she underwent a series of professional and personal growth experiences, including being an officer in the Portuguese Army, working in countries as diverse as Iceland and Costa Rica. Vanessa became certified as a Yoga and Meditation teacher in rural India.
Being a compassionate person by nature, Vanessa is able to bring her connectedness when working with others while enhancing the importance and practicality of a pragmatic evidence-based approach to facilitating lasting and permanent change. Vanessa is a certified health coach whose specialties are nutrition, exercise, and mind/ body connection. She works both in Portugal, Thailand and USA, where she develops her work closely with people diagnosed with cancer, mainly in the areas of nutrition, movement and health education.